The fight to end whaling in the Southern Ocean reaches a crucial hurdle tonight when an international court issues its ruling on a trans-Tasman challenge to Japan's "scientific" annual hunt.
The International Court of Justice (ICJ) in The Hague in the Netherlands is set to issue its ruling on efforts to have Japan's programme banned, because it falls outside the scientific allowance set down in the 1946 whaling convention.
Australia initiated the action, but after some debate New Zealand intervened in support, with Attorney-General Chris Finlayson travelling to the Hague last July to present submissions to the 16-judge panel.
While the decision has the potential to add pressure on Japan to curtail its programme, experts have warned that getting involved in Australia's challenge was risky, as losing could effectively sanction Japan's position, making attempts to negotiate an end to whaling more difficult.
At the time of the hearing, Finlayson warned it was "inevitable" that Tokyo would trumpet the decision internationally as a vindication of its programme if Japan won.
Last night Foreign Minister Murray McCully said New Zealand remained opposed to Japan's "so-called" scientific whaling.
He refused to comment on the implications of different rulings, but hinted that talks would continue.
"While the case has been heard, New Zealand has continued to work with Japan to try and find a permanent solution to whaling in the Southern Ocean."
Sir Geoffrey Palmer, the former chairman of the International Whaling Commission, said he expected the ruling of the ICJ to be "dense" and highly-qualified, meaning both sides could walk away from the decision claiming victory.
Japan had shown no inclination to curb its whaling programme and the confrontations with the Sea Shepherd in the Southern Ocean were making it more difficult for it to "withdraw with dignity", he said.
Australia's challenge was an election pledge Kevin Rudd made in 2007 as opposition leader, to take legal action against Tokyo.
Australia argued that Japan was cloaking a commercial whaling operation "in the lab coat of science" so it could continue to sell whale meat just as it did prior to agreeing to the 1986 ban.
New Zealand's case was that Japan was using various parts of a treaty to ban commercial whaling to create an exemption from it.
During the case lawyers for the Japanese said the court did not have the authority to rule what was science, and that its programme was necessary.
Greenpeace spokesman John Frizell said a decision in favour of Australia's challenge "would place Japan in a very difficult position and present great difficulties for its operation in the Antarctic".
But if the judges ruled for Japan "they will feel vindicated and free to continue their operations which are becoming increasingly controversial".
- The Dominion Post